Weaving an Inescapable NET

By Oeendrila Lahiri, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 4Humanities International Correspondent

It’s that time of the year again. Postgraduates and doctoral scholars of the country are once again all het up over the National Entrance Test (NET), which tests one’s teaching aptitude. The National Entrance Test is a centralised qualifying exam designed to ‘determine eligibility for lectureship and for the award of Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) for Indian nationals in order to ensure minimum standards for the entrants in the teaching profession and research.’ [1]

Humanities, Social sciences, Forensic Sciences, Computer Science & Applications and Electronic Science fall directly under the ambit of the NET. One must ‘have the NET’ if she or he wants even an ad hoc position these days. The University Grants Commission (UGC) – ‘the only grant-giving agency’ in India and responsible for determining and maintaining standards of higher education – will only have certified teachers on board, it seems.

Ironically, it is the quality and standard of the test itself in the humanities which urgently needs rethinking. Judging by the structure of the first paper of the test, a lecturer must know everything from trigonometry to where the tallest trees on earth grow. This is followed by a second paper with ‘objective type’ questions and another with ‘essay type’ questions.

And you are in for a riot if you are an English Literature person. Candidates here have to cover not just 1010 years of British/English history, but they also need to be aware of painfully inconsequential trivia such as ‘Who published the second edition of Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad?’ The year I sat for it, the paper asked which of the given five novels was the most depressing. I had to tick the right answer. Fifty years of literary theory is obliterated to produce eligible humanities lecturers and professors. The paper continues for four long pages. The examinees are asked the correct death and birth dates of poets; sometimes they need to match periods with their respective British monarchs; and sometimes they have to choose the right sequence of an author’s publications. Keep ticking.

The third paper is checked only if a candidate passes the first and second. And it is virtually impossible to get qualifying marks in those two given the obscure and obsolete questions. In 2010, only 11 candidates from the country passed the NET for English Studies whereas there were 309 successful candidates from Economics and 516 from Political Science.

The National Entrance Test is symptomatic of the neglect towards the humanities. The papers are structured on the model of management and technical studies. The system seems unaware of the many historical turns the study and teaching of humanities have taken over the years, nor is it in a hurry to review its own methods. The questions are set quite randomly, without a theoretical framework, because they are pooled in from across the country to create a question bank from which the exam draws. This is neither good for the universities nor for the thousands of humanities graduates and postgraduates who are seeking teaching jobs.

Delhi now suffers from a severe shortage of English Studies staff. There are more than one hundred vacancies. But this is not so surprising. What is astonishing is the UGC’s understanding of humanities. One is left to wonder how dates and figures are relevant to teaching literature. The statistical nature of the test has no corresponding relevance either to the university syllabi or to graduate exams. It can assess in no certain way the ability of a candidate to effectively communicate ideas to a class. Moreover, it encourages a culture of rote learning that is quite difficult to manipulate at a postgraduate level unless one is blessed with a powerful memory and is inclined to cram.

One wonders if the degree of success in cracking the NET is a good or a bad sign. Maybe the low success rate of candidates testifies to a broader consciousness which the exam itself lacks. Judging by the numbers quoted above this system is clearly failing while threatening a large number of fresh scholars with unemployment. But is the UGC bothered?
[1] http://www.ugc.ac.in/inside/net.html

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